America has embraced Lemon Socialism.
The federal government — that is, you and I and every other taxpayer — has taken ownership of giant home mortgagors Fannie and Freddie, which are by now basket cases. We’ve also put hundreds of millions into Wall Street banks, which are still flowing red ink and seem everyday to be in worse shape. We’ve bailed out the giant insurer AIG, which is failing. We’ve given GM and Chrysler the first installments of what are likely to turn into big bailouts. It’s hard to find anyone who will place a big bet on the future of these two.
It gets worse. While Washington debates TARP II, the Federal Reserve Board continues to buy or guarantee or provide loans for a vast and growing pile of questionable financial and corporate assets, much of which are likely to be worth far less than the Fed has paid or guaranteed or accepted as collateral. We’re talking big money here — so far over $2.4 trillion. (The entire TARP — parts I and II — in combination with the proposed stimulus package come to just over $1.5 trillion.)
Taxpayers are on the hook for this Fed bailout money, too, of course. We have to pay the interest on the ever-growing debt used to make these payments or guarantees and loans. Yet while TARP II and the upcoming stimulus package are receiving a great deal of attention, this much larger public commitment by the Fed is not. That’s partly because the media doesn’t much of understand it, but also because the Fed is doing it in secret, using provisions of its charter never before utilized, and avoiding discussion before the full Board of Governors for fear such meetings would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Put it all together and at this rate, the government — that is, taxpayers — will own much of the housing, auto, and financial sectors of the economy, those sectors that are failing fastest.
Consider too that the government already finances much of the aerospace industry, which is still doing reasonably well but depends on a foreign policy that itself has been a dismal failure. And a large portion of the pharmaceutical industry and health care sector (through the Medicare and Medicaid, the Medicare drug benefit, and support of basic research). These are in bad shape as well, and it seems likely the Obama administration will try to reorganize much of them.
What’s left? Most of high-tech, entertainment, hospitality, retail, and commodities. So far, at least, we taxpayers are not propping them up. And when the economy turns up — perhaps as soon as next year, most likely later — these sectors have a good chance of rebounding.
But the others — the ones the government is coming to own or manage — are less likely to rebound as quickly, if ever. If anyone has a good argument for why the shareholders of these losers should not be cleaned out first, and their creditors and executives and directors second — before taxpayers get stuck with the astonishingly-large bill — I would like to hear it.
It’s called Lemon Socialism. Taxpayers support the lemons. Capitalism is reserved for the winners.
Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.
Copyright 2008 Robert B. Reich
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